Lately, we’ve been reflecting on what gives certain women an undeniable magnetism. Poise, intelligence, humor, kindness, and --perhaps most indicative-- confidence. Laura Silverman is a woman with magnetism. From her saturated professional life as a writer and branding consultant, to her lifelong passion about the transformative power of the natural world, few people view the passing years with as much vigor and intentionality as Laura does. In another interview, she reflects on aging and says, “I know myself better, which is helpful in making choices… I am much more connected to my true essence and my heart’s desires. I am also more sanguine, more grateful and more tolerant of my own flaws and of others.”
We visited Laura at home in the Catskills, where she lives with her husband and runs The Outside Institute, a space for people to reorient themselves with the natural world. The institute’s programs educate individuals about sustainability, indigenous species of plants and animals, forestry, botany, and herbalism. We talked with Laura about her formative moments in nature, attaining authentic wellness in one’s 50s and 60s, planting deep roots and learning to pay attention.
Photos by Arden Wray
Can you tell us about your background and how it shaped your current passions?
I was raised in Santa Cruz, California, where the redwoods meet the ocean. My parents instilled in me a love of learning and the joy of being in nature. Both have been a through line and directly inform my lifelong pursuits as a writer and naturalist.
Can you elaborate on a formative experience you had in nature that shifted something in your life?
There have been so many, but today what stands out for me is the first time I moved a dead animal off the road. I had long been disturbed by seeing them repeatedly run over, even on back country roads, and finally decided to take action despite feeling frightened and squeamish. It was a baby raccoon. As I grasped his small, leathery hand, I felt an overwhelming sense of grief but also determination.
After I brought him to a safe resting place in the bushes, it transformed into a moment of grace. This is now a regular practice that connects me to our animal kin and feels redemptive.
How did you decide to form the Outdoor Institute? What is your current vision for the group?
After nearly a decade of learning about the natural environment around my home in the Catskills, I hoped I had something of value to share with others. We’re all yearning to be more attuned to our higher selves, and this means rediscovering that we are part of—not separate from—nature.
I see myself as belonging to a long tradition of guides who take people into the wilderness to experience this homecoming. The result is an expansive love and awareness that everyone deserves to feel. I would like to get this message out to more people through publications, speaking engagements, and workshops.
How can women living in cities feel more connected to the natural world (in more specific ways than just walking or running outside)?
I think it’s a misconception that you have to “go to nature” when it’s actually all around us. Of course it’s meaningful to have that outsized experience of being on top of a mountain or out at sea, but it’s equally wonderful to feel yourself deeply rooted in one familiar place. It’s about learning to see, to really observe, to “pay attention,” as Mary Oliver says. You can look up and study the clouds, be curious about even the humblest little bird.
I’ve come across countless plants—from Queen Anne’s lace and mugwort to Datura and epazote—growing on street corners in New York City. (Don’t know where to start? Try getting an app like iNaturalist or pl@ntnet for help discovering what’s growing around you.) The connection comes from opening yourself to being in relationship with all of it. Everything flows from there.
Do you have any advice for women who feel like they are entering a new chapter in their lives, either due to circumstance, age, or a self-realization? You seem to have lived different chapters of a continually rich life-- how does one start anew?
Sometimes, life’s transitions seem so effortless. At other times, there is a hard stop that requires you to evaluate and redirect. I think staring down fear is important, especially fear of failure. Keep looking for your life’s purpose—never give up! Find a way to be of service. Don’t be in it for the glory. Start anew by leaping into the abyss, tethered only by the certainty that the Universe will catch you.
What is an epiphany you've had (big or small) in the last year?
I’m only as good as my practices.
I’m only as good as my practices.
What does "health" or "wellness" mean to you, especially in the decade you're currently living? Do any popular health adages or practices feel unnecessary or uninteresting to you?
Oh, this is a big one for me. I’ve lost enough people in my life to realize how precarious health can be. On the brink of 58, I feel both lucky and a bit apprehensive to be staring down my 60s. But bring it on!
My goal is always to increase strength, resilience and flexibility—of mind and body. I’m so grateful for my online fitness group that allows me to train intensely at home and also for the beautiful hiking trails accessible nearby.
I read Stoic philosophy, which gives me perspective on what I can control (my own mind). A young friend was recently asking me about my skincare regimen and I ended up sending her a screed that started with regular facials and ended with clean eating, affirmations, and quality sleep.
For me, every aspect of life has to do with health and wellness, from what I’m thinking to who my friends are to how I’m moving through the world.
What ingredients or recipes have been in heavy rotation lately?
Dandy blend tea with cream. Soups, braises and curries for winter. Chili crisp, of course. Goat kefir for smoothies with romaine and spinach. Whole roasted celeriac. Sparkling water with my homemade black walnut bitters.
Can you recall a line, quote, or excerpt from something you've read that has stuck in your head?
This is a paraphrase from “Active Hope,” by Joanna Macy: If 4.5 billion years of our planetary history were to be shown as a single day, each hour would represent 18.75 million years and each minute 3.125 million years. Given this analogy, humans have only been in existence for 5 seconds.
What is a current, random rabbit hole or fascination that's been holding your attention?
I’m really into lichen, a composite organism that represents the mutualistic relationship between algae or cyanobacteria and fungi. It takes many forms—crusty, powdery, spongey—and is incredibly adaptable, resilient and always quite beautiful.